The U.S. Army's chief of staff told Congress on Tuesday that female soldiers could begin their training to serve in direct combat arms jobs such as infantry and armor by this spring, but it could take up to three years to form gender-integrated units.

Gen. Mark Milley joined Marine Corps and Navy leaders at a Feb. 2 hearing to testify before a skeptical Senate Armed Services Committee about future plans to merge women into ground combat units across the services.

"Readiness is the Army's number-one priority, and I believe that full integration of women in all career fields will either maintain, sustain or improve the overall readiness of the United States Army ... if and only if we maintain and enforced rigorous combat readiness standards, we retain a merit-based results-oriented organization, and we apply no quotas," Milley said.

Currently, Defense Secretary Ash Carter is reviewing plans from each service that detail how female troops will be integrated into units that were closed to women until his decision in December that all military occupational specialties would now be open to women.

The first step for the Army, Milley said, will be to begin gender-neutral training for all officers, noncommissioned officers and junior enlisted.

"This spring, female cadets and officer candidates who meet the gender-neutral standard will be given the opportunity to request either infantry or armor branches," Milley said.

Currently, infantry and armor training for enlisted soldiers is not gender integrated at the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.

"We will probably enter women into infantry and armor basic training at the Maneuver Center down at Fort Benning sometime the early fall, probably September or October of this year," Milley said.

The Army intends to follow a "deliberate, methodical approach that begins with assessment, selection, training and assigning of female infantry and armor leaders -- both officers and NCOs to units," Milley said. "Then we will assign female junior enlisted to those units.

"I estimate that effective female integration into infantry, armor and Special Forces will require no less than one to three years of deliberate effort to develop the individual skills and grow our leaders."

Navy and Marine Corps leaders were less detailed about their plan to move forward with the integration of women.

"The Corps has already notified 231 women who have successfully completed ground combat arms MOS [training] ... that they can switch to these previously closed jobs immediately if they chose to," Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said.

While the policy is already in place, lawmakers pressed Army and Marine Corps leaders to explain their decision to allow women to serve in direct combat roles such as infantry and special operations units.

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